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The advanced stats are split between Ohio State and Michigan

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The margins are small, so turnovers, special teams, and rushing success rate should determine who wins The Game.

The Game is finally here. There are obvious playoff implications for the winner -- as there should be -- but this is still the most important game of the season regardless.

It's a fitting ten-year anniversary of the epic 2006 top-ranked matchup, too, with the teams ranked 2nd and 3rd in the College Football Playoff rankings and in the S&P+ as well (but reversed in the S&P+).

With a game this tight statistically -- there are very, very few advantages for either team -- the things at the margins will play an even more important role: field position and special teams (especially field goals!), the rare explosive play, and turnovers.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +14 (4th) +63 +20 1.19
Michigan 89.73 +8 (15th) +67 +31 1.31

This is the first time this season that Ohio State's opponent has a better net explosiveness rating due to Michigan's insane defensive numbers. Only three teams have a better total turnover margin than the Buckeyes. In general, close net explosiveness scores seem to lead to close games for Ohio State.

When Ohio State has the ball

S&P+ Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 14 2 54.9% (2) 75 52 40.4%(68) 77 33.7 (7) 5.18 (12)
Michigan 1 2 30.7 (4) 15 1 25.3% (1) 13 26.6 (14) 2.67 (1)

Statistically, Michigan has the best defense in the country. Made up of almost entirely upperclassmen, the Wolverines have shut down everyone they've played. Only Michigan State and Colorado have even cracked 20 points. It's no secret that Ohio State's offense has also been extremely volatile, ranging from 98% performances against Wisconsin and Nebraska to an abysmal 29% last week against the Spartans. So where are the weaknesses for the Buckeyes to target?

  • In terms of the advanced metrics, Michigan doesn't really have anything I'd call a weakness. Their lowest-ranked metric is in standard downs IsoPPP at 28th (and that's the only one even in the 20s!), meaning that defense is a little more susceptible to big plays on early downs rather than passing downs. Those are likely explosive runs.
  • Only two opposing quarterbacks have either thrown for over 200 yards or averaged more than 6.6 yards per pass -- Colorado and Maryland. On the season they average 5.6 yards per pass allowed and have 11 interceptions. They also sit at the top of every advanced stat pass defense metric except for passing IsoPPP (where they're 13th). Given the variation in the Buckeyes' passing performance this season, it's extremely tough to imagine Barrett and the receivers finding much through the air. It's likely to be cold but not raining or snowing on gameday, so that at least shouldn't be a factor. As a result, expect plenty of creative ways to get receivers the ball -- screens and swing passes, some short high-percentage passing, and then a few play-action deep passes to try and help open up the run game.
  • Maybe the biggest worry for the passing game is that Michigan is the best team in the country at creating negative plays, ranking first in adjusted sack rate and overall havoc rate, and third in stuff rate (stopping runners at or behind the line). Ohio State has to stay on schedule offensively to win this game -- the Buckeyes are third in overall standard downs S&P+, but 56th in passing downs S&P+, meaning that they really struggle when they're forced in to obvious passing situations. Their play success rate plummets 25 percentage points from 56% to 31%, making them reliant on explosive plays (which Michigan very rarely allows anyway). So that translates to the offensive line's performance on early downs -- Ohio State can't allow early-down sacks or bad tackles for loss (the Buckeyes rank 67th in adjusted sack rate and 3rd in stuff rate).
  • Ohio State has the second-best running game in the country, ranking second in overall  rushing S&P+, success rate, and opportunity rate, first in power success rate, and third in adjusted line yards. Essentially, the offense churns out 5-11 yard runs with ease. Michigan is excellent in run defense (15th) and ranks first in standard downs line yards per carry. That's a big concern for Ohio State, as standard downs success rate might determine the game overall. Michigan has only allowed over 3.4 yards per carry twice, against UCF and Michigan State. I'd expect a fairly similar run game as last week, with lots of Barrett runs and potentially a little more Curtis Samuel. The Samuel vs. Jabrill Peppers matchup will be interesting -- Peppers can meet Samuel's athleticism, but his strength is certainly in coverage and he can overpursue in run support.
  • Without big advantages in really any statistical area, you'd expect the Buckeyes to play field position and count on maximizing scoring opportunities, but even there Michigan is dominant, ranking 14th in defensive starting field position and only allowing a national-best 2.67 points per scoring opportunity. The Buckeye offense also excels in those areas, but there is almost no evidence to suggest that a conservative, field-position based game will work against Michigan -- the Buckeyes will likely need to be aggressive in both play calling and when deciding whether to go for it on fourth down. Field goals and turnovers might end up deciding this game.

When Michigan has the ball

S&P+ Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 7 20 34.6%(9) 94 5 33%(7) 89 25.2 (4) 3.15(7)
Michigan 25 28 45.9%(42) 62 11 42.5%(50) 20 335.5(1) 5.11(17)

  • Michigan's offense is in an interesting situation with Wilton Speight potentially (probably?) out for the game. Backup quarterback John O'Korn has limited action this season, but has relatively struggled -- and that was just against Indiana last week. If O'Korn plays, expect Ohio State to try and bring a little more pressure, as he's tended to struggle more under pressure than Speight. Overall Michigan ranks 27th in adjusted sack rate (Ohio State is 89th in defensive adjusted sack rate). O'Korn completes a slightly worse percentage of his passes than Speight, but averages three full yards per attempt less -- that's a significant disadvantage for Michigan if Speight can't go.
  • Michigan has three main receiving targets, and they're the same as last year -- Amara Darboh, tight end Jake Butt, and Jehu Chesson. Jake Butt is the high percentage target, catching about 71% of his passes, while Darboh is by far the most frequently targeted option. Jake Butt has the size to be a mismatch with the Buckeye secondary and potentially the linebackers as well. He will be difficult to stop and will likely be the first-look option on third downs. Like usual though, big plays are the thing to watch for -- Ohio State is 7th in passing success rate but 89th in IsoPPP, while Michigan is 50th and 20th in those categories offensively. That suggests that the Wolverines could find an explosive passing play or two, especially if they can break Ohio State's contain on the outside like L.J. Scott did last week for the Spartans.
  • Michigan prides itself on being a hard-nosed rushing team, but it's actually only a good, not great, rushing offense. Leading rusher De'Veon Smith is fine, but has just a 35.4% opportunity rate. Backup and freshman Chris Evans has only have of Smith's carries, but has a 48% opportunity rate and averages about 1.5 more highlight yards per opportunity than Smith. Overall the run game is 28th in S&P+ and 64th in opportunity rate. The gameplan for the Buckeye defense should be fairly clear: stop the run first and foremost. The Buckeyes actually have huge advantages in both stuffing the run (29% stuff rate, 1st, to 17.8%, 57th) and in preventing 5+ yard runs (31.2%, 8th to 40.1%, 64th). If the defense can successfully stuff the run and prevent 5+ yard runs on standard downs, then it will take multiple explosive passes on passing downs to score on the Buckeyes. I can see that happening once or even a few times, but not consistently.

The 4 most important stats

  • Offensive adjusted sack rate -- especially on standard downs. Ohio State has to avoid taking sacks from the adjusted sack leading defense (the Buckeyes are 67th). If they take negative plays, particularly on early downs, there is little evidence to suggest that the Buckeyes can create enough explosive plays to get them out of long-distance situations.
  • Standard downs success rate -- especially rushing success rate. It's hard to predict a great day for the passing game, but the Ohio State run game vs. the Michigan run defense will be strength-on-strength, so this matchup will likely determine most of Ohio State's offensive success.
  • Defensive passing IsoPPP. The Buckeyes only real weakness on defense is that they can allow explosive plays every now and then. The Wolverines don't have the best passing game in the world, particularly with John O'Korn, but a big play or two could be enough to swing the game.
  • Defensive stuff rate. Ohio State's biggest advantage might be in stuffing the Michigan run game, where they are 1st to Michigan's 57th.

Picks

S&P+: Ohio State 23, Michigan 25, 44.2% win probability

F/+: Ohio State by 2.1

Power Rank: Ohio State by 2.5, 57% win probability

My Pick: Ohio State 27, Michigan 24